Laura Nyro – Singer/Songwriter Extraordinaire

“I idolized her. The soul, the passion, just the out and out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’d heard before.”
—-Elton John

Wikipedia describes Laura Nyro’s songwriting thusly: “Her style was a hybrid of Brill Building-style New York pop, jazz, rhythm and blues, show tunes, rock, and soul.” Her songs were covered by artists as diverse as the 5th Dimension, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Peter, Paul and Mary, Three Dog Night, Maynard Ferguson and Barbara Streisand. But who was she?

Born in New York City (Bronx) in 1947, Nyro’s (née Nigro) father was a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Her musical tastes were diverse ranging from jazz to blues to classical. As a teenager, she would sing (doo-wop, I hope) with groups of friends on street corners and in subways.

She made her way out to San Francisco in the mid-60’s, performing in coffeehouses. Through her father’s personal connections, she got a recording contract and released her first album More Than A New Discovery. To say it was an auspicious beginning would be an understatement. Eventually nominated into the Grammy Hall of Fame, it contains three songs that would become major hits for other artists – “And When I Die,” “Stoney End,” and “Wedding Bell Blues.”

You may well have heard Streisand’s really fine version of “Stoney End” but here is Nyro herself. Listen to this voice and production. It’s like Broadway mixed with a pop sensibility:

Spotify link

The 5th Dimension had a hit with “Wedding Bell Blues” but I like the girl group purity of Nyro’s version better (but these songs are so good they’re easily translatable by anybody who can sing):

Spotify link

It is not widely known, or at least not widely remembered that Nyro performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She did not make the documentary cut and a weird rumor spread that she left the stage in tears, booed by the crowd. Some footage was found later proving this story to be absolute bullshit as she played to a largely appreciative crowd. Elton John and Elvis Costello discuss this here on Elvis’ great but short-lived show, Spectacle.

Nyro later connected with David Geffen who became her manager. And here’s an odd-but-true story – she briefly considered becoming lead singer of Blood, Sweat &Tears when Al Kooper left. Instead, David Clayton-Thomas became lead singer and of course, they had a huge hit with “And When I Die.” Go figure.

In 1968, Nyro released Eli and the Thirteenth Confession which both Elton John and Todd Rundgren say had a direct influence on them. Paul Shaffer calls it his desert island record. Rundgren met her and she admitted that making the album was a drag and she felt rushed. He later tried to produce an album for her but it didn’t work out.

I assume the Eli here is he of the Bible but I am not really sure. Three Dog Night had a hit with this and I’ve always dug it:

Spotify link

Nyro and Geffen had had the foresight to establish a publishing company when they got together. In 1969 they sold it to CBS for $4.5 million ($31M in 2018 dollars) making both of them, shall we say, filthy rich. Nyro had been fighting all this time against the male-dominated music industry and outfoxed them all.

The 5th Dimension had several hits with her songs but I think my favorite (and probably the funkiest and least overproduced) is “Stoned Soul Picnic.” (My wife and I wound up seeing the 5th Dimension a few years ago, somewhat inadvertently. It was actually a hell of a show.)

Spotify link

In 1971, when she was 24, tired of being marketed as a celebrity – and doubtless comfy with that cushion of cash – Nyro retired from the music business. She was an item with Jackson Browne for a while, then got married, had a kid, later got divorced and made some level of comeback. But while her albums sold to her fans and she did some live performing, arguably her most celebrated work was contained in her first few albums.

Aficionados will tell you that her third album New York Tendaberry may be her best. I don’t know where he originally heard it, but Kanye West sampled her song “Save the Country” on a song he did called “The Glory.” Nyro did her song as a reaction to the 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Spotify link

Lastly, I kinda dig 1970’s Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, at least as much for the fact that it includes members of the Rascals and the Muscle Shoals crew as much as anything else. The Muscle Shoals band? Wasn’t Duane Allman a player in that group pre-Allmans? Yes, he was. Here is “Beads of Sweat” with Duane playing some nice, tasty and (for him) restrained guitar. He and Nyro even do a little call-and-response at one point:

Spotify link

On April 8, 1997, Laura Nyro died at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer, same disease – and age – as her mother. She was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and, by Bette Midler, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.  (“She could make a trip to the grocery store,” said Midler,” feel like a night at the Casbah.” Her legacy lives on.

Sources: Wikipedia, various websites.

 

19 thoughts on “Laura Nyro – Singer/Songwriter Extraordinaire

    1. Oh man, she is IT, brother. Listen to any of the covers of her stuff. She’s way more famous as a songwriter (inadvertently) for others than as an artist in her own right. They even made a play out of her songs in NYC once. It didn’t go because they tried to pull together disparate songs into a story but couldn’t. But I’ve always liked her songs. Maybe the most famous interpretation of her songs is Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ‘And When I Die.” Give it a spin sometime. Massive hit. ‘Sweet Blindness’ is another great tune.

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  1. DEC 23: LAURA NYRO/ JACKSON BROWNE @ FILLMORE EAST for one of my favorite shows of all times as it was a Christmas present for my brother. A youngster who was wooing NYC and The Warhol gang at that time, with his charm, one Jackson Browne opened up on acoustic guitar. Jackson Browne’s guitar playing was good and his voice angelic with lyrics that belied his youth to say the least. Then, Ms.Nyro appeared on stage, a stage adorned with just a Steinway piano and two white lighted Christmas trees, one left, one right. Breath taking, and a great night to be with my brother.Her tunes, hits by everyone, were played in her style. She was truly an artist unlike others. Unique.

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    1. That is pretty awesome. Yes, the 1970 date lines up with what Wikipedia says which is that Browne was her opening act in late ’70, early ’71. And her boyfriend as well. Thanks for the memories!

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  2. She was a great one. I especially love 5th Dimension’s cover of her songs “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Save the Country.” I have a CD of her doing the latter song at the Fillmore East (May 30, 1971), and it’s pretty intense.

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    1. Yeah, she was a major talent. I mentioned that my wife and I saw the 5th Dimension. It was a make-up ticket for another show we saw that got complaints. We loved it. Very entertaining in a Vegas kind of way. I think Marilyn McCoo was the last original and boy, she was great.

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  3. Know some of the tunes. The last album you mentioned sounds interesting. Listening to Duane’s licks as I type. You have a pretty broad range of tastes. When the Doc says listen, I do as I’m told.

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    1. Yeah, don’t go looking to her for rock for the most part. She’s got that Brill Building/pop/showbiz thing. But her tunes are memorable and they hold up. Check out other commenters. I dont know too many songs of hers I don’t like, especially early years.

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  4. All of the covers are brilliant and wonderful and (truly) iconic, but whenever you hear Nyro’s versions of her own songs, there’s such a sense of rightness, almost inevitability about them. Not many artists you can say that about.

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    1. Well said, Michelle. I know exactly what you mean. The songs sound just right and couldn’t sound any other way. I feel that way about a lot of Beatles stuff.

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